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Why we celebrate Labor Day: Some trivia to share at the holiday picnic

Union members and their families march in the annual Labor Day parade in Long Beach, Calif., in 2018.
Mark Ralston
/
AFP via Getty Images
Union members and their families march in the annual Labor Day parade in Long Beach, Calif., in 2018.

Updated September 5, 2022 at 8:47 AM ET

Happy Labor Day weekend, America.

The very first Labor Day in the country was celebrated in 1882, and it became an official federal holiday in 1894. The holiday falls on the first Monday of September — Sept. 5 this year. The day typically celebrated with picnics and parades has more to it than that, though.

To mark the nation's 140th Labor Day, here's some trivia about the holiday you didn't know you needed:

It was celebrated in a few states first before it became a federal holiday

Labor activists first started recognizing Labor Day before states started to unofficially celebrate it. New York was the first state to introduce a bill to write the holiday into state legislation. Oregon, though, became the first state to pass it into law, in 1887. Colorado, Massachusetts and New York soon followed.

The first Labor Day celebration had a lot of beer

The first major Labor Day parade was held in Manhattan near city hall in 1882. Police were worried about a riot breaking out, so there was a large police presence in the area. The problem, though, was that almost no one showed up at first to actually march. Awkward.

There was no music playing, and the few people present almost gave up before 200 people from the Jeweler's Union showed up and then things were on a roll. Around 20,000 people ended up marching that day.

Then came the party. Reports at the time said after the parade, there were "Lager beer kegs ... mounted in every conceivable place."

Some traditions, it seems, really stand the test of time.

In the Department of Labor, women led first

The Department of Labor, which was created after the holiday, was the first department led by a woman: Frances Perkins. Perkins helped lead President Franklin Roosevelt's administration through changes in labor policy after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 146 people — mostly women and girls — died.

The Labor Department is also the agency that has had the most women secretaries, six in total. The department's headquarters is named after Perkins.

The day off is great. But what exactly are we celebrating?

A lot. Do you enjoy not having to work weekends? The 40-hour work week? Having sick days and paid time off? You can thank labor leaders for that. Thousands of Americans have marched, protested and participated in strikes in order to create fairer, more equitable labor laws and workplaces — and still do today.

This year, the Department of Labor recognized essential workers of the coronavirus pandemic in its Hall of Honor.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
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